Rents And Homelessness In The US: Are They Connected?

line drawing of a person's head partly obscured by a wine bottle and smoking cigarette
Alcoholism 2683225 photo by Victoruler is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

There is a debate about why people become homeless in the United States. Some people see the rental market as the issue. Others think that personal factors, such as drug addiction or mental illness, are driving homelessness. Three researchers at the Pew Charitable Trust figured out a way to investigate whether rents or personal issues matter more.

The researchers studied housing markets in cities across the US in the years from 2017 to 2022. They compared the growth in the number of people experiencing homelessness with the corresponding rental housing markets.

2017-2022 is a good period to study because homelessness has generally gone up across the country. But there are variations between the cities. Looking at what happened in the centres with small/no rises in homelessness could provide policy guidance that would be useful to policy makers and decision makers.

The study team found that the performance of the local rental market provided a good fit in explaining what had happened to local homelessness.

When rents go up a lot, homelessness goes up

The results from Chicago and Sacramento are indicative of the findings from all the cities in the study. Each city represents a local market. What’s significant here are the changes over time in the each city. :

City Change in Median Rent Change in Homelessness
Chicago 10% -31%
Sacramento 47% +144%

The rent increase of 10% in Chicago did not contribute to growth in the rate of homelessness: in fact the rate of homelessness went down. In Sacramento, where the median rent increased 47%, the rate of homelessness rose by 144%.

Homelessness is higher in cities with high rents

There’s also a relationship between rates of homelessness and rents. The data from Houston and San Francisco in 2022 are indicative of the findings from all of the cities in the study. Once again, it is the relationship within each city which is significant:

City Median Monthly Rent People Homeless/10,000 population
San Francisco $2,160 95
Houston $1,244 5

San Francisco’s median rent is much higher than in Houston. The rate of homelessness in San Francisco is also much higher than it is in Houston.

The article linked to this post states that

“[H]ousing costs explain far more of the difference in rates of homelessness than variables such as substance use disorder, mental health, weather, the strength of the social safety net, poverty, or economic conditions.”

The article’s authors speak directly to the debate about what causes homelessness:

“Some vulnerabilities strongly influence which people are susceptible to homelessness. But research has repeatedly concluded that these factors play only a minor role in driving rates of homelessness compared with the role of housing costs.”

This research is clearly intended for a US audience, but it includes features that will make it relevant to readers outside the United States:

    • There is an overview of academic research on the factors that contribute to homelessness.
    • The methodology used in the research could be replicated elsewhere.
    • The research discusses land use policies and programs that correlate with lower levels of homelessness.

Read more at Pew: How Housing Costs Drive Levels of Homelessness